Caracas: Venezuela, which has accused a pair of Latin American ex-presidents of trying to spark a coup, on Sunday denied them permission to speak to jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
"Regrettably, despite all the effort we made with General Rall and even the Vice President (Jorge Arreaza), we have been denied a chance to visit Leopoldo Lopez," Chilean ex-president Sebastian Pinera said outside the Ramo Verde military prison.
He was joined by Colombian ex-president Andres Pastrana, seeking to help Venezuela -- which is facing economic crisis and political impasses under President Nicolas Maduro, an elected socialist.
The blocked visit came as a "great surprise. I never imagined that they would not let us in," Pastrana said. "This is an act that we do not understand. It is not the act of a democrat."
The entrance to the jail was guarded by at least 40 National Guard officers with riot gear and shields.
Another contingent with about 20 officers blocked off a secondary access through the mountainside shantytowns surrounding the prison.
Pastrana and billionaire businessman Pinera waited for over 35 minutes out in the street. But in the end the former presidents were told they would not be allowed to meet with Lopez or other inmates.
"Prisoners in democratic countries have the right to have visitors" on visiting days, which is Sunday here, Pinera stressed.
Lopez "has been detained for almost a year, and even the United Nations says there is no reason for him not to be free," Pinera added.
Pinera denied the allegation that the ex-leaders were trying to foment an uprising against Maduro.
"We have not come to start or to support any coup," he said, adding "if President Maduro wants to be respected he needs to learn to respect others."
On Saturday thousands of demonstrators against Venezuela`s economic crisis -- facing sky-high inflation and shortages of food and consumer goods -- took to the streets, banging pots and demanding an end to Maduro`s term.
Some opposition leaders, fed up with shortages of milk, coffee, sugar, meat, toilet paper, diapers, deodorant and corn meal, and with Maduro`s refusal to overhaul the increasingly state-managed economy, say Maduro must step aside.
Maduro is facing a dismal 22-percent approval rating, and three quarters of the population oppose his government, recent polls show.
With the precipitous drop of oil prices, Maduro has traveled in recent days to Algeria, China, Iran, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia as he makes an urgent appeal for cash.
In November, Caracas failed to convince the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, including top producer Saudi Arabia, to reduce production in order to halt the price drop.